4 Jun 2024

Gregory Hill: taking a train to Spain

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 4 June 2024

It was 40 years ago that Wellington man Gregory Hill first got the idea to travel from New Zealand to the direct opposite part of the world by train.

And over three months in 2019, he achieved that dream with partner Anne Loeser. 

There were a handful of trips across water between New Zealand, Australia and parts of Southeast Asia, but the vast majority were on all types of trains - some comfortable, some not so.

Anne Loeser and Greg Hill

Anne Loeser and Greg Hill Photo: Supplied / Greg Hill

They ended the trip in a wheat field in a Spanish village that was the direct antipode - or opposite land mass - to his lounge in Wellington.

Between them, New Zealand and Spain have an almost unbroken land bridge, he tells Nine to Noon.

“The only difficult spots are the Tasman Sea, the Timor Sea, and three narrow channels in Indonesia - the Sunda Strait, the Bali Strait and the Straits of Malacca.

“Once you've dealt with those five wet bits, most of the rest of it can be done by train.”

The journey started with a train from Wellington to Auckland, followed by a flight across the Tasman, he says.

Then they took a train from Sydney to Darwin.

“From Darwin, we took the second - and only other - flight of the whole trip, and that was to Bali.”

The remaining chunk of the journey could be traversed entirely on land, he says.

“We stayed on the surface all the way through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand; we had to go by bus through Cambodia…and we ended up in Vietnam, and it was rail all the way from Vietnam to Alaejos [in Spain].”

 Most the trains they travelled on were quite comfortable. The least pleasant part of the journey was Vietnam to China, where they were turfed out twice for customs checks – once in Vietnam and once in China.

The plushest train was the Trans-Mongolian Express, which runs from Beijing, north through Mongolia to Russia and terminates in Moscow.

“It was really plush: a two-berth cabin with beautiful wood panelling, red wine-coloured drapes hanging by the windows and carpet on the floor.

“[It had] two comfortable bunks, one above the other. Everything was wonderful, but it was a combination of that comfort and old-fashioned, not very good condition. There was no air conditioning, [but] it didn't matter at that time of the year, it was just fine. In fact, you could even open the window, which is pretty extraordinarily extraordinary on a modern train.”

The food varied as the journey progressed, he says.

“We left Beijing with a Chinese dining car and the food was pretty ordinary. But next morning, the Chinese dining car was gone, there was a Mongolian one and this place was an absolute revelation. The inside of it was decorated completely with intricate wood carvings, just all over all over the ceiling, the walls between the windows, the ends of the tables and chairs. It was remarkable.

“And the food once again was nothing to get excited about. Breakfast was that Mongolian specialty, scrambled eggs. And if you wanted a coffee, there was the granules in a jar from a German supermarket.”

And the next morning it was Russian dining car, he says, “with screaming red and white vinyl, high-back chairs. It really shocked you as you walked in there.”

The Europe part of the trip went relatively quickly, he says.

“We took a train that went all the way from Moscow to Paris. You certainly can't do that now - that train doesn't exist any more.

“So, we went all through Belarus, Poland, Germany, into France without stopping.”

Once in Spain, modern tech allowed them to pinpoint the exact antipodal spot, he says.

“Google Earth, of course - it's so easy compared to what it was once upon a time.”

Greg Hill in a wheatfield outside Alaejos

Greg Hill in a wheatfield outside Alaejos Photo: Supplied / Greg Hill

There were, however, some last-minute hitches.

“I took screenshots of where I wanted to be before I left home. So I had it on my screen - it didn't matter if the phone was working or not, I had it there.

“That turned out to be not the perfect solution, though. We got rather lost trying to try to find the exact spot. And we ended up actually having to crawl through a drain under a motorway, then found we were in the wrong place, trapped by long grass and fences.

“And then we discovered we've done the wrong thing. So we had to go back underneath the motorway again. And suddenly, it was all very clear, there was the spot right in front of me.”

It was a pleasure, he says, to travel for travel’s sake.

“We gave ourselves three months, so everything was planned [and] we had to stick with that plan. And it was never a problem actually - nothing came unstuck, no matter what sort of dodgy railway system you might think you're on, everything goes according to schedule. It was quite remarkable.

“The only hiccup really was when we got to the supposedly civilised world and in Germany, where the trains always run on time, the trains were a debacle and it almost fell over there.”